Book Review: We the Animals

Title/Author:  We the Animals by Justin Torres

Genre:  Literary Fiction, Vignettes/Short Stories, Coming of Age

Published:  August 15th, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Hardcover, 128 pages.

How I Got the Book:  Checked it out from my library

Why I Picked It Up?:  Stumbled upon it on Goodreads one day.  The style sounded a lot like The House on Mango Street (which I adore) so I thought I would give it a go!

Book Jacket Blurb:  “Three brothers tear their way through childhood— smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn—he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white—and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.”

My Review of the Work:

We the Animals serves as a collection of vignettes aimed to tell the story of a boy growing up as a “half breed”–that is, white mother, Puerto Rican father–as the youngest of three brothers.  These brothers are three years apart, and in their heads, they are a collective, a “we.”  Told in a reflective voice, the narrator remembers key moments in his childhood that have led him to his present–the very last vignette.  In this short novel, readers will get the beauties and horrors of growing up in his unstable, dysfunctional family.

The style of this novel is very similar to that of House on Mango Street (though I do like HoMS much better than this).  The vignettes are written in a way that does not come right out and state exactly what happens.  A lot of the time, you have to infer what is going on, because that is the nature of literary writing like this.  Most of the time I understood everything, though there were times when I didn’t quite understand what the narrator was trying to tell me as the reader.  But honestly, that didn’t take away from the story.

The stories themselves are, in one word, heart-breaking.  This is a child growing up in a dysfunctional family full of some love and a lot of hate and violence.  And our narrator does not really feel a part of this family at all.  He keeps many things hidden from them, even from his brothers, who as they grow up become more violence-focused.

Did I really see where this was going until I got there?  No.  For me, the last (and longest) vignette came mostly out of nowhere.  I would have liked to see the internal struggle of homosexuality appear more in the stories leading up to the end.  I feel like, for such a big part of the narrator, it is just not addressed enough.

Overall, I really enjoyed the writing style and appreciated what Justin Torres was trying to accomplish in this short debut.  If you are a fan of literary stories told with the use of vignettes, then it is worth checking out.

My Bookshelf Rating:

A Middle Shelf Book.

This compilation of vignettes creates a poignant piece of literary writing, giving this coming of age story a unique–and very violent–spin.  This is a work about growing up in a struggling family and struggling with your own identity within a unit.  A warning, this is not a happy story–though there are happy moments.  This is an example of how life can not be so great sometimes.  But it is written beautifully.

Love and Love,
Jennifer

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One thought on “Book Review: We the Animals

  1. Reve @ YA Books says:

    Fantastic review, Jennifer! I'm not too much of a fan of contemporary novels, but I do make exceptions for novels that have a literary/cultural spin. This sounds like something I would enjoy immensely. I'm interested to see how the vignettes play out as well. Thanks for reviewing! I'm gonna have to see now if my Library has a copy :).

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